Missing women of China

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Missing women of China refers to a shortfall in the female population of China resulting from cultural influences and government policy. The term "missing women" was coined by economist Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, to describe a distorted population sex ratio in which the number of males far outweighs the number of females.[1] According to 2012 figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s sex ratio at birth (the number of boys born for every 100 girls) was as high as 118, while the sex ratio amongst the total population was approximately 105.[2] The statistical data from China shows that the gap between male and female at birth is far larger than the biologically benchmark ratio (a sex ratio at birth of around 105 males per 100 females).[3]


Amartya Sen noticed that in China, a country with a traditional discrimination against women, rapid economic development went together with worsening female mortality.[4] A significant decline in China’s female population happened after 1979, the year following implementation of economic and social reforms under Deng Xiaoping.[4]

Sen concluded that there were three reasons why the environment for Chinese women had deteriorated, particularly since 1979:[4]

  • Compulsory measures—the one-child policy implemented in 1979,aimed to control the size of families,[4] and effectively meant a "one-child family" for most Chinese families—although there were some exceptions. (The policy was not enforced among the country's minority populations, and a number of exceptions among the majority Han populations.)[4] Given a strong son preference, these compulsory measures resulted in a neglect of girls and in some cases led to female infanticide. Female infant mortality soared in the early years after the reforms in 1979,[4] while some statistics imply that female infant mortality doubled from 1978 to 1984.[4]
  • A general crisis in health services arose after economic reform as previously funding for China’s extensive rural health care programs had largely come from agricultural production brigades and collectives.[4] While the economic reforms abolished these traditional structures, they were replaced by the household-responsibility system, which meant that agriculture remained concentrated within the family,[4] while availability of communal facilities in China’s extensive rural health care system were restricted.[4] In gender, the effect of a restriction in medical services was neutral, but in a Chinese rural society that looked up to men and down on women, the reduction in health care services had a significant impact on women and female children.[4]
  • The household-responsibility system involved a reduction of women’s involvement in paid agricultural labor.[4] At the same time, employment opportunities outside agriculture were generally scarce for women.[4] According to Sen’s cooperative conflicts approach ("who is doing productive work and who is contributing how much to the family's prosperity can be very influential"), the impact of this systematic change on women within the household was negative, because women had fewer bargaining powers in their families.[4] This reality motivated families to prefer boys over girls, which contributed to reduced care for female children.[4]


The causes of the high sex ratio in China result from a combination of strong son preference, the one-child policy, easy access to sex-selective abortion, and discrimination against and abuses of females.[5]

Chinese historical and traditional culture: son preference

Son preference is traditional in Chinese Confucian patriarchal culture.[6] Sons are preferred for a number of reasons: people think sons continue the family line or carry on the family name, have a higher wage-earning capacity, provide ancestral worship, and are generally recipients of inheritance, while girls are often considered as an economic burden.[3][5][7] After marriage they typically become members of their husband's family and cease to have responsibility for aging or ill parents.[3][5][7]

With socioeconomic improvements, modernization and the rise in women's status, son preference has declined in many urban areas in China[8] but has persisted in some strictly traditional families and rural areas, reasserting itself under the one-child policy. The greatest shortfalls of females appear in parts of rural China where there are instances of 140 male births for every 100 female.[8]

One-child policy

China implemented its one-child policy from 1979 onwards, whereby a couple can only have one child and couples that violate the policy face penalties.[9] This policy aims to restrict births, and to encourage most families to have only one child, especially in urban areas. However, the policy was not enforced among the country's ethnic minorities, and a number of exceptions were made among the majority Han population.[3]

Given strict family-size limitations and a preference for sons, girls have become unwanted in China because they are considered as depriving the parents of the possibility of having a son,[7] while a deeply rooted son preference makes many families want a son.[3] With the progress of prenatal sex-determination technologies and induced abortion, the one-child policy gradually turned into a one-son policy.[7][10] Some view such a policy as disrespectful of pregnant women and discriminatory against them, as the policy forces some women to undergo an abortion.[11] Poor health care and malnourished female babies are also the result of the combined effect of son preference and the one-child policy.


Under the tradition of son preference and the one-child policy, missing females in China are formed through sex-selective abortion, discrimination in care for females, and non-registration of girls at birth.

Sex-selective abortion

The combined factors of son preference, the one-child policy and the availability of prenatal sex-identification technology have allowed prenatal discrimination to spread since the mid-1980s in both urban and rural areas in China where abortion is legal.[8] This technological progress leads to a large excess of male births.[12] About 37–45% of China's missing females may have been missing at birth.[1] According to China Statistics Press 2013, the sex ratio at birth in China was 111 in 1990, 117 in 2001, 121 in 2005 and slightly declined to 119 in 2010.[2] China's huge population translates these ratios into large numbers of excess males, which has contributed a large proportion of the global statistics on missing women.[13] Nevertheless, some commentators argue that sex-selective abortion may have some benefits.[14][15] Firstly, access to prenatal sex determination has probably increased the proportion of wanted births in the form of sons, reduced relative discrimination against girls and reduced female mortality after birth. India, South Korea and China have all reported lower female mortality in the last decade.[14][15] Secondly, in terms of the next generation, imbalanced sex ratio may help to control population growth.[14] Thirdly, the scarcity of women in society leads to girls being highly valued and their social status increased as a result.[14][15] Such improvements in women's status also lead to a reduction in son preference with fewer sex-selective abortions and ultimately the attainment of a rebalancing of the sex ratio.[15]

Female infanticide at birth

Although it has been shown that newborn girls have a biological advantage over newborn boys in surviving the first year of life,[16] premature mortality incurred by infanticide and the abandonment of newborn girls along with neglect of their healthcare and nutrition has been seen in China. These practices result in a female infant mortality ratio that is far higher than that of males.[17] Female infanticide is the intentional killing of baby girls due to a preference for male babies and from the low value associated with the birth of females."[18] Sen points out that the phenomenon existed historically and still remains in a number of Third World countries.[19][20] The Great Chinese Famine during 1959–1961 prompted many families to choose female infanticide to save food to secure their families.[3][21] In September 1997, the World Health Organization's Regional Committee for the Western Pacific claimed that "more than 50 million women were estimated to be 'missing' in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing's population control program that limits parents to one child."[18]

Poor health care and malnutrition

Neglect Health care and nutrition of girls and women contributes to missing women. Discrimination against daughters post-birth leads to poor health care and malnutrition, and eventually premature death.[22] In terms of female adults, early-life conditions directly influence their health and mortality.[23] According to Chinese traditions, the period of zuo yue zi, the first 30 or 40 postnatal days, is an essential convalescence for mothers to ensure their future health.[24] If they are not given support or taken care of within this period of time (e.g., some rural women do heavy farm work within zuo yue zi), potential risks include health complications and possible early death.

Non-registration of female babies at birth

In order to leave themselves opportunities to have sons and avoid paying penalties on over-quota children, some parents in rural areas of China usually do not register their female babies.[25] This will lead to a shortfall of girls registered as residents. Some of the missing women in China result from this under-reporting or non-registration of baby girls.[25]

Consequences of the phenomenon

Wifeless men

Since prenatal sex determination became available in the mid-1980s, China has witnessed large cohorts of surplus males who were born at that time and are now of marriageable age. The estimated excess males are 2.3, 2.7, and 2.1 million in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.[18] Over the next 20 years, a predicted excess of 10–20% of young men will emerge in large parts of China.[18] These marriageable-age husbands-to-be, known as guang gun (光棍), translated as "bare branches" or "bare sticks", live in societies where marriage is considered as part of an individual's social status.[3][18]

An additional problem is that since women tend to marry men in higher socioeconomic groups than their own, the shortage of women in the marriage market will leave the least desirable, the poorest, and uneducated men with no marriage prospects.[8]

Some commentators worry that those left wifeless men may be marginalized[8] as being single is barely socially acceptable in a Chinese cultural context.[26] These wifeless men's lives could be seriously influenced by how the public view them.[26] They may have senses of loneliness, self failure and uselessness and be prone to psychological problems.[8] There is also a possibility of these young men emigrating out of mainland China to other countries with more women (like Ukraine, Russia, and most of the West), if the problem continues to persist.[8]

An alternative viewpoint suggests that the shortfall of women might have some positive effects on society.[27] Facing declining possibilities of finding wives, men among the surplus cohort are more eager to improve their competitiveness in the marriage market.[27] Some are more willing to take unpleasant or dangerous hard work thereby providing more labor.[27] They hope that the wealthier they become, the more competitive they will be in finding a wife.[27]

Propensity to violence

The future social impact of the guang gun remains a topic of concern. The majority of Chinese think that the guang gun are likely to have an impact on criminal behavior.[28] An early commentator predicted that, "such sexual crimes as forced marriages, girls stolen for wives, bigamy, visiting prostitutes, rape, adultery... homosexuality... and weird sexual habits appear to be unavoidable.".[3] Annual province-level data for the years 1988–2004 has showed that a 1% increase in the sex ratio is followed by a 3% increase in violent and property crime rates, meaning that unmarried men might account for part of the rise in crime.[29] Conversely, marriage reduces male criminality.[29] A study in China found that people share the same concerns: 65% of 7435 people of reproductive age think crime will increase, 53% are worried about the less safe streets, 60% consider these excess men as a threat to societal stability, and 56% believe the imbalanced sex-ratio will result in an increase in prostitution and trafficking.[8]

Opposing voices argue that no evidence appears to support these worries. After comparing high and low sex ratio areas, crime in areas with more men was tend to be no higher than areas with low sex ratios.[8] Also, in comparison with other countries, the crime rates are relatively low in China.[15]

Sex trafficking of women

Experts believe that the continuing skewed sex ratio in China leads to an increased demand of women for brides by guang gun and a decreased supply of eligible women.[25] The shortfall of women in China has contributed to through women in China being bought and sold, which is a crime in China.[25] Most abducted women are between the ages of 13 and 24.[25] Among these abducted women, most are traded as brides in rural areas of China.[25]

Abandonment of infant girls

Under the one-child policy, some Chinese parents in rural areas abandon their very young daughters in order to increase the possibility of raising a son.[25] More than 95% of babies in state-owned orphanages are healthy baby girls, while a high percentage of these abandoned girls die within couple of months because of the poor conditions and health neglect in orphanages.[25] Those parents who abandon their girl children leave their children either not far from their homes or close to public places to make sure that the babies can be found.[25] According to an official in Liaoning province, “Every year, no fewer than 20 abandoned baby girls are found in dustbins and corners.”[25]

Prevalence of sex workers

One potential problem with a large number of wifeless men is that many millions of Chinese sex workers appear to represent a broad range of backgrounds.[30] Although prostitution is illegal in China, there may appear expansion of female sex workers to meet increased demand of wifeless men.[30] In China, the female sex work industry has flourished in the past century.[30]

The number of female sex workers in China increased from 25,000 in 1985 to 420,000 in 1996.[30] It was estimated by the Chinese Public Security Bureau that there were 4–6 million sex workers in China by 2000.[30] The U.S. State Department estimated in 2001 that there were 10 million sex workers in China.[30]

Potential risk of HIV

In recent years, surplus men have come into the HIV risk sphere.[30] Research suggests that the combined effects of sexual practices, sex work, and surplus males probably have effects on HIV transmission.[30] As a result, young, poor, unmarried surplus men could become a significant new HIV risk group.[30] Before these men find wives, they may be at greater risk of infection with HIV from female sex workers in urban areas.[30]

According to the police surgeon and municipal health officer for Shanghai, the spread of sexually transmitted infection has a close relationship with young unmarried men.[30] For most unmarried migrant workers in China, there is a substantial gap between HIV knowledge and infrequent condom use.[31] Based on a sample of 506 migrants, about half of them had multiple sex partners and 89% of these migrants did not use condoms.[30]

Aging population effects

Large numbers of missing women also contribute to the problem of population ageing in China.[32] Since females and males together are responsible for the social reproduction,[32] a shortfall of women will lead to a reduction in the number of current and future newborns, ultimately accelerating the aging problem in China.[32] According to forecasts, based on the current sex ratio the elderly population in China will increase by about 3% annually for the next 30 years.[33] People over 65 in China will account for 15% of the population between 2025 and 2030, while those over 60 will account for a quarter of the population in 2050.[33] This rapidly increasing elderly population will also aggravate the social burden of the pension insurance system.[33]


Change in laws and policies

To control the imbalanced sex ratio, which is caused by the combined effects of son preference, sex-selective abortion and one-child policy, the Chinese government has taken some effective measures.[34] Laws forbidding infanticide, abandonment and neglect of female children already exist.[14] There are also penalties for trafficking and kidnapping.[14] The Chinese government has also published laws forbidding foetal sex determination and sex-selective abortion.[8]

China has recruited unmarried young males from poor backgrounds into the People's Liberation Army and into the paramilitary People's Armed Police.[3] These armed personnel who were poor and unmarried males from China’s rural areas have helped government maintain social stability in 1989.[3]

Improving women’s status can also help reduce the sex ratio at birth.[34] The Chinese government pays more attention to women’s legal rights, especially their economic development.[34] More emphasis has been placed on forming laws and regulations for women’s economic status, education opportunities, inheritance of family property, willingness of marriage, and old-age supports.[34]

From 2005, 600 Chinese yuan per month is given as a pension to parents in rural areas who have daughters.[5] In 2000, in order to establish a better survival environment for girls in Chaohu city, Anhui province, the "Chaohu Experimental Zone Improving Girl-Child Survival Environment” was established and implemented in 2003.[34] The main activities were "establishing specialized organizations, conducting trainings, punishing those found to be committing non-medical sex-selective abortions and infanticide, advocating for regulations and laws addressing gender equality, holding focus-group discussions for mothers-in-law, helping women to participate in socioeconomic activities by providing economic support, encouraging active male participation in the improvement of women’s status, enhancing the social-security system, and popularizing uxorilocal marriages (in which husbands marry into wives’ birth families), in addition to other activities."[34] The outcomes after three years was encouraging: the sex ratio at birth declined from more than 125 in 1999 to 114 in 2002.[34] Based on this program, in 2003, the Population and Family Planning Commission initiated a campaign called “Care for Girls” to encourage couples to consider the advantages of having girl children.[34] The results were also significant: a survey in 2007 showed that son preference had decreased in participating areas and the sex ratio at birth in the rural of Shanxi province fell from 135 in 2003 to 118 in 2007.[5]

In 2013, the responsible government department issued a new policy called the “two-child policy” as opposed to the previous one-child policy.[35] Even though the new policy applies to couples who have met certain conditions, such a policy can still have some effect in correcting the sex ratio. Such a policy change will not result in total population growth that is out of control. Instead, it could help satisfy most Chinese couples’ desire while avoiding a worsening demographic structure; and also relieve the Chinese government from the financial and political costs of enforcing an unpopular policy.[36]

Change in attitudes

Although China’s sex ratio at birth is still one of the highest in the world, growing evidence has shown that son preference in China is declining.[5] In recent interviews, many young Chinese adults expressed the view that they do not care about the gender of their future child, even though son preference was common in their parents’ generation.[5] A recent study showed that among the 66% claiming to be gender indifferent, 13% (10% urban 16% rural) prefer a boy, and 21% (22% urban and 18% rural) want a girl.[8] Hesketh points out that with the consideration of advantages of raising girls, including that they are easier to care for, easier to find a spouse for, and take good care of aging parents, gender indifference and girl preference increase in comparison with previous son preference.[8]

See also



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